Tackling the Edit Letter: How I Handle It

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Every writer who keeps a blog seems to have an entry about The Dreaded Edit Letter. Far be it from me to buck the trend.

So if you have a book deal, sooner or later you are going to receive an edit letter from an editor, on top of the one you may have already received from your agent. (If you don’t get one from an editor? You should probably ask why.) You may or may not also get an extensively marked up manuscript. 

This sight can be extremely intimidating. You might feel like the This Is Fine dog, sitting in a room on fire and having to pretend all is well. Now is the time to dig deep. 

Remind yourself, several times if necessary, that these people took on your novel because they like it. They want readers to like it too, which is why your manuscript is covered in red Word comments and your edit letter comes in actual chapters rather than mere pages. 

Your editor will take apart your characters, showing you all the ways in which their behavior, which seems perfectly clear and rational to you the author, won’t make sense to a reader—or might even make a reader actively dislike the character, which is not good if that wasn’t your intent. 

They might also show you places where the plot starts to come unwound, or where you revealed the bad guy way too early and knocked all the tension out of things, or how these two characters you love dearly are redundant and should really be combined to streamline the novel. 

They’ll also point out the parts where you called someone by the wrong name, or repeated a word seven times on the same page, or had someone saying something that seems incredibly out of character. 

(Me? I’m the queen of overusing the word “dark.” “I entered the dark room and couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face in the darkness. ‘Gee, it sure is dark in here,’ I said darkly. Darkitty-dark-dark-DARK.”)

And so forth. 

If you’re like me, you’re going to feel very foolish after you’ve read all that. Why didn’t you notice all that stuff? How could you have sent that novel out to people looking like this? What the hell were you thinking? Why in the world did you ever take it into your fool head to write a book in the first place?

And how on earth to start fixing it all?

I tend to abide by some fairly common advice: To start with, read the letter once and then put it away for a little while, long enough for any resistance or raw feelings to fade. Let the feedback start marinating in your brain. 

If you haven’t actually read your manuscript in a while, this is a good time to read it again. Don’t worry about changing anything yet; just keep the letter in mind while you read. 

Okay, so you’ve let the letter steep for a bit, you’ve reread your work, and you’re ready to get going. Now what? 

Common advice: make a list of all the overarching issues the editor pointed out. Does this character need development? Is this subplot a jumbled mess? Are there issues with too much description (or not enough) throughout the book? Breaking these issues down into a list of tasks that you can work with—and cross off—can make things less daunting.

Or not. 

I’ve tried doing things this way, but started feeling like I’ve fished an old necklace out of a jewelry box only to find it’s gotten hopelessly snarled with several other chains. How do I even begin to untangle that mess? 

When the sheer volume of edits feels so overwhelming I don’t even know where to start, here’s what I do: I make an editing schedule of X chapters per day, where X is a reasonable daily goal that leaves me a completed revision and at least a few days of review time before the deadline. 

My brain tends to freak out and dive under the bed when faced with enormous and amorphous tasks. Breaking the manuscript down into daily chunks to work on makes it much less intimidating. I’m rarely so busy that I can’t handle two or three chapters of editing per day. And finishing up my daily allotment of work makes me feel good. See? I’m making progress. I’m not going to miss the deadline. 

Yes, if your novel has overarching issues, this approach might present challenges. I deal with that by flipping ahead to future chapters affected by the changes I’m making now and leaving a note: “Remember that you gave Mary the murder weapon instead of John in Ch. 2, so make sure to reflect that here.”

Also, it is perfectly OK to disagree with a change an editor wants to make. A good editor should be willing to listen if you want to keep something the way it is. But I strongly suggest you have a better reason for resisting a change than “Noooooo! I don’t wanna.” It’s also possible that you’ll agree about a problem but see a different way to fix it. That’s also OK. Nobody knows this story better than you, after all. 

Anyhow, I follow my schedule, and eventually I hit The End. Hooray! At that point I reread the novel, tweak things to better reflect the new developments, make sure major changes are reflected all the way through the manuscript, run a comb through its hair and straighten its clothes, and send it back to the editor. 

It’s also possible that during this whole process, you will reread your manuscript so many times that you come to hate it, to believe it’s the worst thing ever committed to paper and will ruin whatever career you have going. That’s normal. Remember what I said above: your publisher bought your book because they like it.

If things start feeling particularly daunting, I remind myself that I’m lucky to be doing this. Getting a big honking edit letter means that you have a book deal, and your book is going to go out in the world to be read by people who aren’t you or your close family. It’s something a lot of writers would kill to have. It’s something you would have killed to have when you first started writing, and now here you are. So make the most of it.

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